When we talk about women’s rights in the Arab world, it’s easy to fall into at least one of three traps. The first is to lump together all women living in a region of 300 million people, ignoring the vast cultural and economic differences between countries as far apart as Saudi Arabia and Morocco. The second is to ignore the impressive achievements of women in the region and only focus on the areas where they still lag behind men. And the third is to forget that some of the Arab world’s biggest problems, such as poverty and illiteracy, are not the sole burden of women: they are just as painful for men.
In a region as diverse as the Arab world, we cannot simply ask communities to conform to a Western notion of women’s rights. Reforms have to be based on what the women in each community want – not what we think they should want. The one value that is truly universal in this context, and that we should strive to promote, is the concept of self-worth. If women feel that their contribution is valued, if they are able to develop a positive idea of themselves, they can stand up to men and shape their community. However, we can’t measure such self-worth using external standards. For example, women’s employment is often cited as a gauge of gender equality. Yet this can make women who look after their families feel worthless, as if child-bearing and care-giving are of no importance.
This also relates to the second point: we need to highlight the positive trends instead of just picking out problems. The proportion of women studying science – including computer science – up to PhD level is higher in the Gulf states than anywhere else in the world. But because women’s employment is such a key international measure, the achievement of these female scientists is rarely acknowledged. If their degree does not lead to a job, it is seen as pointless, as if knowledge and self-improvement only count in dollar terms.
Even on those terms, there is plenty to celebrate in the Arab region. Women make up 30% of entrepreneurs here, more than almost anywhere else. These entrepreneurs tend to be in their early thirties, younger than in other regions. Much cultural progress on women’s education and freedom of choice has been made within tribes and families, and is not always reflected at the government level.
For such progress to be deep and long-lasting, we cannot focus on women alone. Education and economic development are issues that concern men, too. The poorest of the poor in the Middle East and North Africa are women and men. Men may have a few more opportunities but, in many countries, illiteracy and unemployment hurt them just as much as women. If governments and the media focus only on the plight of women, they risk alienating those men, making them less likely to champion women’s rights.
We have to respect the right of societies to develop their own ways of encouraging, promoting and protecting women. Only through organic, inclusive progress, and by addressing women as partners rather than victims, can we turn the Arab region into an engine of prosperity and opportunities for all.
Read a blog on the Top 10 most gender equal countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Author: Muna AbuSulayman is a founding co-host of Kalam Nawaem, one of the Arab world’s most popular TV shows and a partner in Glowork, a Saudi Arabian website to boost women’s participation in the workforce. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader alumni community.
Image: Female Saudi telephone operators work at the International Medical Center in Jeddah June 4, 2007. REUTERS/Susan Baaghil